In “Trash the text? The Bible and its critics” I sought to address the widespread cavalier dismissal of the Bible, a collection of writings that (among other things) tell the story of the Jewish people. I did so by drawing an analogy with a collection of writings, the “Americana Omnibus”, that collectively tell the story of the American people. Each collection has a diversity of documents expressing a wide range of voices. It would make no sense to reject the Americana Omnibus because of your reaction to one particular document (or excerpt) within the greater work, not least because one needs to interpret that document (or excerpt) with respect to its placement in the greater work. Both the Americana Omnibus of my illustration and the Bible are, among other things, extremely complex works and beg from the reader charitable, nuanced engagement.
So imagine for the moment that the Americana Omnibus exists and there are many diverse reading communities that regularly read and study the text in a quest to understand what it means to be American. These reading communities disagree on how to read the text at various points and thus on just what it means to be American. Some read the text as supportive of manifest destiny, for example, while others read it as an indictment of manifest destiny. I am not an American, nor am I committed to studying the Americana Omnibus to discern what it really means to be an American. But recognizing the diversity and complexity that exists in the Omnibus and the diversity and complexity that is predictably mirrored in the text’s various reading communities, at the very least I will withhold any magisterial statements on whether the Americana Omnibus is “good” or “bad”, on whether it is worthwhile to form oneself as an American by reading it or not. I certainly wouldn’t call for the text to be trashed. Such a claim would reflect nothing more than my own hermeneutical dullness.
All this applies to the Bible. It too is a diverse text that spawns diverse reading communities. These communities disagree on how to read the text at various points and thus on just what it means to be a Yahweh follower. And to note but one example of disagreement, some read the text as supportive of some instances of holy war while others read it as an indictment of holy war. Those who are not devotees of the Bible (i.e. they’re not Christians or Jews or…) will not be committed to studying the Bible to discern what it really means to be a Yahweh follower. But recognizing the diversity and complexity that exists in the Bible and the diversity and complexity that is predictably mirrored in the text’s various reading communities, at the very least one ought to withhold any magisterial statements on whether the Bible is “good” or “bad”, on whether it is worthwhile to form oneself as a Yahweh follower by reading it or not. One certainly shouldn’t call for the text to be trashed.
I took the title for the article — “Trash the text” — from one of the leased charitable and nuanced of critics (at least among those that comment at my blog) of the Bible, The Atheist Missionary. This quote represents a particularly vivid eschewal of charity and nuance. Not all critics are this brutish. But others nonetheless adopt responses to the text that strike me as likewise lacking in charity and nuance. In the article I also interacted with quotes from Walter and the philosopher Jason Thibodeau. The latter didn’t appreciate my analysis in the article, and so he led the comments. Among his points were the following:
“Once again I need to state what I stated many times in the other thread: I am not rejecting the text. I am not calling for the text to be trashed. I am certainly not calling for it to be burned.”
“Please try to understand your opponents’ arguments before you subject them to withering criticism and before you call them ignorant, indefensible or barbaric.”
However, I didn’t say Jason was calling for the text to be trashed, let alone burned. But I do believe that his rejection of the text is also unduly dismissive. Jason’s objection is to the interpretation of the Bible as a religious document, something which is inspired, which constitutes authoritative revelation in some sense. He argues that God wouldn’t have used a document with this degree of complexity, ambiguity, and diversity (including morally problematic textual material) as a medium of divine revelation. Thus, he writes:
“What I am claiming is that the passages in which God is portrayed as commanding genocide are evidence that the text is not sacred. My reason for this is that God would not want his name to be sullied by such an association. He certainly would not want people to get the wrong idea that he approves of moral atrocities….”
“I am only claiming that the plain meaning of the texts indicate that God is being portrayed as doing something that he, if he exists, would be horrified by.”
But this is like arguing that the editors of the Americana Omnibus couldn’t themselves be morally upright people who reject manifest destiny because if they had they would never have included texts supportive of manifest destiny in the Omnibus with sufficient ambiguity to spawn diverse reading communities.
Alas, the reasoning in both cases strikes me as wholly spurious.
I am reminded here of my critique of John Loftus in the essay “What John Loftus has is a failure to communicate“. Loftus attempts to argue that the diversity of the biblical text and disagreements among those in its diverse reading communities provides a defeater to the claim that God is the primary author/redactor of the text. I offer a rebuttal to Loftus which can double here as a rebuttal to Jason Thibodeau. The rebuttal centers on what I call “the problem of the brilliantly subtle classic”. I write:
To illustrate, let’s think of two classic anti-war texts. The first is Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun. Trumbo wrote it in the aftermath of WWI as a powerful indictment of war. (A film was produced based on the book which came out in 1971, and Metallica used footage from that film in their video for “One”, just in case you were wondering but were afraid to ask.) Trumbo’s book is a classic American novel and one of the most powerful attacks on war and its aftermath ever penned. It was so powerful in fact that Trumbo actually appealed to his publisher to cease publication of the book during WWII for fear of undermining the war affort against the Germans and Japanese (a decision he later regretted). So two thumbs up for this clear, unambiguous, anti-war novel.
Next up, The Red Badge of Courage. In this case things are very different. Literary critics debate yet today whether the book is actually an anti-war novel or whether it offers a sympathetic portrayal of the maturation of Henry Fleming in the crucible of battle. You see, the way the text reads, straightforwardly, it suggests if not outright proclaims that Fleming became a man in the war. And thus the book seems to offer a positive view of combat. But I’m with those other critics, the majority in my estimation, who say “Bullocks! The book is ironic and as deep, decisive and profound an anti-war tract as Trumbo’s.”
With that background, imagine somebody entering the fray by asserting that whoever wrote The Red Badge of Courage could not by definition be a great author because they had simply failed to communicate. You know how we would respond to such a claim? With a heady session of puzzled head scratching. Please tell me by what criterion you can judge that Red Badge could not have been written by as brilliant an author, with as deeply anti-war a sentiment, as Johnny Got his Gun. When you can do that, I might take your argument against the Bible and its divine author seriously. But until you can do that, well you’ve simply failed to communicate.